Program would be a national model
Minnesota is leading the way nationally to establish a program to rescue juvenile sex trafficking victims.
State law was changed in 2011 to recognize teens sold for sex as victims, but a lack of options has often left them grouped with criminals.
Beaten or brainwashed into pimp loyalty, most teen sex trafficking victims police rescue would run from shelters, said police Sgt. John Bandemer of the St. Paul Human Trafficking Task Force.
To be kept safe, the young victims police encounter usually end up in juvenile detention.
New legislation being carried by Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, would establish the nation’s first comprehensive statewide network to provide secure shelter and targeted, culturally appropriate services to juvenile sex trafficking victims.
Based on the Minnesota Public Safety Office of Justice report “No Wrong Door: A Comprehensive Approach to Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth,” released in January, the $13.5 million bill would establish a connected structure of services, resources and a safe-house escape system that could break bonds and change lives.
The bill designates funds for construction or remodeling to provide safe shelters and resources. It provides training programs for workers such as health care providers and hotel staffers who may encounter sexually exploited children but not recognize the signs of control and bravado or fear and misplaced loyalty.
“One of the problems is that these girls don’t often see themselves as victims,” said Patty Wetterling, Sexual Violence Prevention Program director at the Minnesota Department of Health. “It’s ‘My boyfriend, my boyfriend takes care of me.‘ They don’t see … it’s just part of the sickness of the whole setup.”
Human bodies provide traffickers with a constant revenue stream, said Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.
She said selling child rape is more profitable to the manipulative and abusive traffickers than dealing drugs that can only be sold once.
The bill creates a national model for a coordinated response system to help minor girls escape the sex slavery system that is ruthlessly controlled and can traffic them around the world.
“In some trafficking circles, there’s organized crime, there’s international organized networks involved; in some, it’s local gangs,” Koepplinger said. “Sometimes, it’s families.”
Bandemer said the system has gone online and is everywhere, from small towns to large cities, including cities in Dakota County.
Lewd online ads entice johns with headlines like “2 beautifull (sic) ladys (sic) in Apple Valley” stating “both want to play,” and “Katy Ka-Boom!” announcing she was “back in Eagan.”
Her ad included a disclaimer that stated “Any $ exchanged is for time & companionship only. Anything else that might occur is a choice between 2 consenting adults of legal age and is not a contract nor a request to be contracted for in any manner. This is not an offer of prostitution. Calling me constitutes acceptance of these terms and insures (sic) that you lawfullu (sic) agree thjat (sic) you are not any type of or involved in any way nor affiliated with any type of law enforcement agency.”
Various ads posted featuring scantily clad females all claiming to be at least 18 offer to meet at the Lakeville Walmart or Burnsville Center or at a home off of Cedar Avenue in Lakeville.
In 2005 and 2006, Lakeville police conducted undercover sting operations at the truck stop off of County Road 70 and I-35.
According to police reports, four trafficking victims and four traffickers were arrested, including one trafficker who escaped detection by using a stolen Illinois driver’s license of a trucker he resembled.
Although someone appeared in court and pleaded guilty to the prostitution charge, Lakeville police investigated and requested the plea be vacated.
Trafficking victims included women from Apple Valley, Minnetonka, Byron and Shakopee.
Under the legislation, a full-time statewide human trafficking director would oversee and coordinate the system from the Department of Health.
Six regional specialists, two in the metro area, and 14 outreach workers, all funded through grants, would coordinate the local response to help trafficking victims.
The model is also a result of Minnesota’s 2011 Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Law, which in part requires a first-time diversion by 2014 for any 16- or 17-year-old who has been exploited by prostitution.
It is a victim-centered response championed by local officials, including Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who supported passage of the Safe Harbor Act.
“If we recognize that children who have been prostituted or who have prostituted themselves are actually victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, not offenders of delinquent acts, we can help them,” Backstrom wrote to legislators in March 2011.
The new bill defines how that promised help could happen.
Jeff Bauer, chief lobbyist for the Safe Harbor Act, said regional specialists would know of local shelters and how to get victims there or determine if they should be relocated for safety reasons.
He said outreach workers would be placed in existing organizations across the state “to make sure we’re reaching every child that we possibly can.”
Bauer added that a 2012 cost-benefit study conducted by University of Minnesota researchers determined the state will save $34 for every dollar invested in the No Wrong Door model, primarily in the areas of public health and corrections.
“If you’re only concerned about Minnesota’s budget, this is still a really smart investment,” he told advocates gathered at Dakota County’s Northern Service Center Feb. 4 for a Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force meeting, adding that he hoped he’d have support for the proposal on moral grounds alone.
Koepplinger said there is a growing awareness and response to human trafficking, and a local group of churches is helping to inform, equip and educate the community during a Freedom Weekend event Feb. 16-17.
The multi-day event begins with presentations by trafficking experts who will present information about the horrors of human trafficking happening around the world and locally. Presentations are from 9 a.m. to noon at Hosanna! Church, 9600 163rd St. W., Lakeville, on Saturday, Feb. 16.
Experience a day in the life of a trafficking victim from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17, at International Out Reach Church, located on the north side of Destiny Christian Church at 12119 16th Ave. S., Burnsville.
The event ends with a showing of the award-winning documentary “Nefarious, Merchant of Souls” from 6 to 9 p.m. Feb. 17 at Community of Hope Church, 14401 Biscayne Ave. W., Rosemount.
The hard-hitting film exposes the evils of sex slavery around the world and includes interviews with a former human trafficker.
For more information, go to www.freedomweekendmn.com.
Editor’s note: See related stories, Human trafficking: ‘The crisis of our generation’